When David Pares works in his garage at night, he has to do it by flashlight. That’s because he just doesn’t have the power for lights with what he says he’s building in there: the first-ever working warp motor, the holy grail of sci-fi technology.
Even as bold claims go, it’s an especially ballsy one. The Omaha-based science professor and former Air Force meteorologist—whose beard, white hair, and soft-spoken manner combine for a distinctly George Lucasian air—insists he’s successfully created the proof-of-concept for technology that’ll ultimately take humans to the stars.
The larger scientific community isn’t so sure. Pares doesn’t work with the kind of precision instruments, at the scales of energy, or with the absolutely exhaustive controls against error that typically mark the bleeding edge of physics research. Part of what makes Pares interesting is how little this distinction bothers him. He is just as happy to use his wife’s croquet ball for a weight as anything forged in precision steel.
"The only difference between a garage and [NASA’s] lab is that I’ve got lower overhead," he says.
Another difference, of course, is that Pares says he’s built a warp drive, while NASA maintains that "for the near future, warp drive remains a dream."
Warp drive is widely known as a storytelling device—not a real one—used to get characters from one part of a fictional universe to another, without having to account for thousands of years of transit time. The idea, rather than moving a ship directly, is to drag it along with the actual frame of space and time it occupies. This could allow, in effect, faster-than-light travel, something the laws of physics says is impossible with any form of Newtonian propulsion—like rockets—that involves shoving matter in one direction to make thrust in the other. If achieved, warp drive could cut an interstellar trek from centuries down to a couple weeks
Physics say this might be possible. In the 90s, physicist Miguel Alcubierre extrapolated on Einstein’s equations to show that a 3D parcel of spacetime could be compressed on one end and expanded at the other, while creating a flat and stable region of spacetime in the middle—a warp bubble. But the equations say creating this bubble requires a lot of energy. Like, all the energy in the universe.
That’s more than the average garage power socket can put out, but Pares readily points to subsequent interpretations of those same equations that suggest the actual energy needed is something more equivalent to the mass of a star, or the planet Jupiter. NASA’s own Harold "Sonny" White—who teased the world’s nerds with renderings of what an actual warp ship might look like, based on his own massaging of Alcubierre’s math—claims the energy needed is akin to the mass of the Voyager spacecraft.
That’s a lot less than, you know, a universe worth of energy, and closer to what might be possible with earthly tech like electromagnetism.
"The theoretical physicists all believed that you couldn’t make a warp bubble unless you had the exotic energy of antimatter, or dark matter," Pares says. “If I would have believed those guys, I’d have put down my Etch-a-Sketch, walked away and drank a beer.”
Pares’s garage work area looks like he timeshares with Emmett Brown: picture multicolored wires strung among wooden shelves and chicken wire, connecting all manner of electromagnetic devices. The metal carapace of a model spacecraft sits on its aft like some sort of Cylon suntanning pod. Pares has pursued his vision here since 2012 under the auspices of Space Warp Dynamics, a company he formed with University of Oklahoma physics student Matt Judah and a small all-volunteer team that includes two physicists, a software engineer, and a systems designer.
Despite their DIY means, the team claims that by running a couple hundred watts through their array of custom-built, fractally patterned, V-shaped warp circuits, they’ve consistently documented the physical displacement of a 3 ½ pound weight in a Faraday cage (a container that blocks electromagnetic signals). They also say this is possible whether or not the object is magnetic. In principle, that shouldn’t be possible.
There are other interesting signs, like a compression detected in patterns of a laser beam passed through the electrical field, or a red-shift detected where Pares confidently says his device is compressing spacetime. Taking his experiments at face value, it is tempting, at least to the layman, to think Pares might actually be on to something with his homebrew hyperdrive.
"We’ve been able to show all the numbers in our graphs that indicate that we’re producing an artificially induced pulling action," Pares says. “We’ve already shown that we can do this right now, but everybody’s waiting for Star Trek, don’t you know ... and of course who the hell’s gonna listen to me? ‘He works out of a garage!’”
His workspace and tools might be less than state-of-the-art, but that’s not necessarily what stands between Pares and a sit-down meeting with NASA. More difficult for the scientific mainstream to look past is Pares's habit of citing UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle as inspiration. Indeed, Pares and his research partner Judah are actively involved in organizations and conversations related to UFOs and the paranormal.
When Pares was 16, he saw an unidentified object flying over his home in upstate New York. Whatever its origins, the silvery saucer-looking-thing appeared to accelerate, impossibly, to hypersonic speed without the sonic boom that goes with breaking the sound barrier. Pares speaks of the event—which he suggests was an extraterrestrial encounter—with the tone of someone who long ago got used to the idea that many people probably won’t believe him.
Adding more strain to credulity. following his gig as an Air Force meteorologist, Pares became fascinated by the experience of pilot Bruce Gernon. In 1970, Gernon reported flying his small airplane through a swirling hole in a thunderstorm, zipping over a hundred miles in the span of a few seconds. The story is something you’d hear on late-night radio programs dedicated to the paranormal, a man flying into a naturally occurring warp bubble generated by the intense electrical forces in the heart of a tropical thunderstorm.
To Pares, though, the story is anything but ridiculous. In fact, he says the tri-pole electrical fields created between thunderclouds and the earth are key to recreating the phenomena Bruce Gernon encountered at laboratory scale. As a meteorologist, Pares is confident in the power of thunderstorms. Did you know that thunderstorms are so electrically powerful that they create gamma rays? I sure didn’t. Any hypotheses Pares voices generally seem at least partially rooted in legitimate science.
Carl Sagan said, "the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."
That’s not to call Pares a clown, or even to say that he isn’t on to something. Maybe he is—the guy is well educated, and is himself an educator. His claims might sound kooky, but he’s certainly not crazy. Not that Pares cares whether people call him crazy. He sees the dismissal as just another form of institutional elitism, and remains undeterred by the lack of institutional recognition. What does frustrate him is the fact that no one is bothering to challenge the conclusions he’s reached, based on what he sees as a too-narrow concept of what constitutes genuine scientific research.
"I sighted a UFO and I can describe to you in great detail what I saw, but people will tell you, well you’re full of shit," Pares says. “That was one of the driving forces, and what pushed me towards engineering and the sciences, and learning as much as I could about every discipline possible, because they’re all interconnected ... If I were just in the physics discipline, I would have never figured this out. It would’ve meant sticking with chemical [rocketry], maybe get into ion drive. But you get into this exotic stuff, you’re gonna be labeled as a weirdo, as an outcast. Not that that hasn’t occurred!”
Pares continues to gather as much evidence as possible to support his claims. He submitted for a patent on his warp device, which now has pending status. He has submitted proposals to the Department of Defense, NASA, and various conferences and associations, but hasn’t been able to get his work peer-reviewed. What response he has received include the suggestion that his results are "a bit premature," or a request for refinements of his data, which he says he’s provided but still hasn’t received a response. In the mean time, he’s published on his own the results of five experiments and invites their scrutiny.
"We’re held to a double standard," he says. “If NASA did what we did and had the measurements we have today, they’d be parading them around and getting the Nobel Prize in Physics. Us? We would have to build the Starship Enterprise.”
Pares speaks of being overlooked by the ivory rocket tower of aerospace research with the tone of someone who genuinely just wants in on the game, and who really believes he’s offering something worthwhile—even game-changing. The fact that Pares’s work is having trouble jumping the hurdle into the larger scientific conversation might be the result of snobby science, but it’s also a sign that the science is working. Science sets up brutal standards of evidence for entry into the discourse or the laboratory, trusting many small steps over one giant leap.
"[Warp technology] has staggering implications if it were to be realized. But being so new, it’s easy grounds for people to make it look like they know what they’re talking about," says Marc Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project and director of Tau Zero, a consortium of scientists and thinkers dedicated to facilitating sensible research into new forms of propulsion. “You look at how the work is being done, rather than what they’re working on or who’s doing it. I’ve seen sensationalism from within the professional community, and I have seen excellent work on the part of amateurs, so it’s how they do the work.”
If it turns out the patterns Pares has measured are just the result of improper grounding, heat generated by the system, or some other externality that may have somehow eluded the error-proofing process, the whole picture crumbles. And that would mean a lot of wasted time and money for all involved. The reason NASA isn’t knocking on his garage door is that the institution of science is built on skepticism—the tree of knowledge sprouts from an enormous pile of failed hypotheses, and no one wants to spend their precious money on anything that isn’t a relatively sure bet. That mentality shows in the overwhelming majority of research dollars that go to advancing traditional propulsion methods.
"If there’s a compelling enough reason to do it, NASA will do it," says JPL propulsion physicist John Brophy. He’s largely responsible for the ion engine that dropped the Dawn spacecraft into orbit around Ceres a couple months ago, and knows about getting moonshot ideas off the ground—not only did he help usher in a brand new age of previously sci-fi propulsion (the TIE in ‘TIE Fighter’ stands for Twin Ion Engine), he’s now working on the Asteroid Redirect Mission, that’ll scoop up an asteroid in a fashion akin to something a James Bond villain would dream up. These were considered “out-there” ideas at one time, too, but the principles involved built clearly and directly upon previous research.
"Advanced propulsion concepts work is like parsley: you want to have a little bit on your plate but you don’t want to have too much," Brophy says. “The vast majority of them probably won’t pan out, but you want to make sure you don’t miss something important.”
But what if the work of a lone tinkerer is the exception? Who knows, maybe the precursor to humanity’s future among the stars does begin in a garage in Omaha. If Pares's claims are true, it’ll take a demonstration of sufficient clarity to leave no one in doubt.
Pares continues to work toward such a demonstration. With the time and money he has to spare, he’s building a computer control interface that streamlines the timing of his motor’s electromagnetic fields; refining his prediction graphs; and hoping to use special sensors to actually map the warp bubble he says he’s creating. For the blockbuster test that proves he’s right once and for all, he’s planning on lifting the model spacecraft in his garage—dubbed Bluebird II—into the air. He’d much rather be lifting a full-sized spaceship into the sky, and hitch a ride along with it, but that moment remains consigned to a future yet to come.
According to Star Trek lore, Zefram Cochrane cooked up the first warp engine in his Bozeman, Montana compound, making his inaugural launch while blasting Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride. Pares says he’d prefer to be launched into space to the strains of the Celtic Woman’s rendition of Amazing Grace. "Bagpipes can really inspire you," he says. “Also being half-Scottish, that’s probably why I always want more power for the ship.”